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ESI in the press International Herald Tribune, 11.08.

2006

'Protestant work ethic' in Muslim Turkey


Dan Bilefsky International Herald Tribune
August 11, 2006

KAYSERI, Turkey As the muezzin heralds the noon But the region also is experiencing tensions between
prayers on Friday, a small army of workers fans out from Turkey's official secularism and its religious fervor,
an industrial park to take their places on mats in a nearby suggesting that reconciling Islam and business can create
mosque. Fifteen minutes later, the prayers are over and challenges.
the teachings of the Koran have given way to the de-
mands of the factory floor. "If you're not a good Muslim, don't pray five times a day
and don't have a wife who wears a head scarf, it can be
"In European countries, workers take a 15-minute smok- difficult to do business here," said Halil Karacavus, man-
ing break; here we take a 15-minute prayer break," said aging director of the Kayseri sugar factory, one of the
Ahmet Herdem, the mayor of Hacilar, a town of 20,000 biggest Turkish businesses, which expects €500 million,
people in this deeply religious and socially conservative or $642 million, in revenue this year.
region of Central Anatolia, which has produced some of
Turkey's best-known companies. "During this time, you Even so, business is thriving, a fact that local business
are in front of God and you can ask him to help improve leaders attribute to an entrepreneurial spirit that, they say,
business and this is good for morale." is also part of Islam. Herdem said that the secret behind
the city's business prowess could be traced to the Prophet
Many Europeans and secular Turks alike have long dis- Muhammad, himself a trader, who preached merchant
missed this poor, largely agricultural region as the "other" honor and commanded that 90 percent of a Muslim's life
Turkey, a decidedly non-European backwater where you be devoted to work in order to put food on the table.
are more likely to see women in head scarves than busi- Opening a factory in Islam is a sort of prayer, Herdem
nessmen in pinstripes. Islam, they argue, never underwent added.
its own Reformation and so is not receptive to capitalism
and innovation. "In Kayseri we like to say that if you are stupid, go to
school," he said. "If you are clever, go into business.
Yet Kayseri and surrounding towns like Hacilar have
produced so many successful Muslim entrepreneurs that "It is good for a religious person to work hard, to save, to
the area has earned the title of "Anatolian tiger." invest in the community," he continued, noting proudly
that while bustling cafés are a prominent feature of Turk-
Carpet weavers are being supplanted by textile compa- ish life, there is only one café in Hacilar, and it is usually
nies that produce clothing for fashion houses in Paris and empty because everyone is always off somewhere com-
Milan, while sheep farmers now share land with giant pleting a deal.
furniture manufacturers. Companies that have started
here include Orta Anadolu, which makes 1 percent of the Framed by rugged mountains and located on the old
world's denim; Boydak Holding, a giant conglomerate Ottoman silk route, Kayseri, a city of one million people,
that includes a bank, a transport arm and the largest Turk- remains steeped in Islamic culture and centered on the
ish cable factory; and Istikbal, a furniture company quiet rhythms of village life. Most companies sets aside
whose yellow and blue label can be found in stores across rooms for prayer and most of the older businessmen have
Turkey. been to Mecca on the hajj, the pilgrimage that all Mus-
lims are enjoined to make once in their lifetime. Unlike
The region's mix of Muslim values, hard work and raging elsewhere in Turkey, few of the city's restaurants serve
capitalism has even prompted sociologists to coin a new alcohol, which is prohibited by Islam.
term to describe the phenomenon: "Calvinist Islam."
At the Kayseri sugar factory, one of the most profitable
As Turkey seeks to join the European Union amid grow- businesses in the region, Rifat Herdem, an adviser to the
ing skepticism in Europe about the prospect of integrating managing director, said that Islam had played an impor-
a large agrarian Muslim country into one of the world's tant role in buttressing profit. He said that in the early
biggest trading blocs, the case of Kayseri shows that 1990s, the factory was suffering from low capacity while
Islam, capitalism and globalization can be compatible. paying steep prices to buy sugar beet because prices were
set by the state and a handful of sugar beet producers held
Central Anatolia is profiting from its mix of religion and a monopoly.
business because of what local Muslim entrepreneurs
refer to without irony as their "Protestant work ethic" - a But because Islam commands equality in business, he
willingness to work long hours, a commitment to com- said, the factory was pushed to expand its sourcing from
bine religious conservatism with democracy and a pro- one sugar beet grower to 20,000 producers. That, in turn,
business bias within Turkish Islam. Analysts say Kayseri brought the price of sugar down and helped lift profits.
also got an edge by building one of the largest Turkish "Because of Islam we were pushed to diversify our sup-
industrial zones; in 2004 it applied to the Guinness Book ply chain and this was good for business," he said.
of World Records for starting the construction of 139
new businesses in a single day. Not everyone at the factory, however, views Islam as a
benevolent influence. Halil Karacavus, managing director
ESI in the press International Herald Tribune, 11.08.2006

of the company, complains that the region is too much "All the pictures of Turkey show a donkey and an old
under the influence of the governing AK Party of Prime man picking his nose," he said. "We have to overcome
Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It is a traditionalist party this unfortunate prejudice."
with Muslim roots and won 70 percent of seats here in
2004 municipal elections. One person who is helping to overcome such clichés is
Ikbal Cardaroglu, a successful Kayseri chartered ac-
Karacavus said that the AK Party too often had tried to countant. She is also an active member of the AK Party,
mix religion with business. He said that because he was in which powerful women are scarce.
known as a secularist in a region dominated by Islam,
government auditors have audited the sugar factory at Cardaroglu, who wears chic black suits and drapes her
least five times this year, and the government had tried to white silk designer scarf around her shoulders as a fash-
install religious- minded people on its management ion accessory, said that she had encountered few hurdles
board. The effort did not succeed, Karacavus said, be- on the way to being a successful Muslim businesswoman,
cause the company was successful and that insulated it though she said that when she began working in the
from interference. 1980s, people pointed at her on the street, and women in
her neighborhood expressed pity.
"For me, Islam doesn't come first, which can bring prob-
lems because the best contracts, land and tax breaks are "When I first told my friends I wanted to go into busi-
given to people who share the AK Party's religious be- ness, they were surprised, since most women here are
liefs," Karacavus said. teachers or bank tellers," she said. "I did not wear a head
scarf at that time, and when I got married, my husband
Ahmet Herdem, the mayor of Hacilar and a member of complained that his friends' wives wore head scarves and
the AK Party, argued that the party's mix of democratic that I should do so, too."
conservatism and free-market ideals had been a large
factor in Kayseri's success. Rather than hampering busi- Experts here argue that, owing in part to traditional Is-
ness, he said "the stability and economic reforms that the lam's view of the role of women, the participation of
AK Party has brought has been good for business by women in the Central Anatolian economy was too low
encouraging investment." and could be a drag on the region's success.

For other business people, it is globalization rather than According to the European Stability Initiative, an institute
Islam that has transformed the region. Saffet Arslan, in Berlin that conducted a study of Kayseri, the employ-
managing director of Ipek, a large furniture producer that ment rate of women is 37 percent, compared with 74
exports to 30 countries, said that in the past 30 years, percent for men, with the majority of women still em-
local Muslims, who previously eschewed making money ployed as agriculture laborers.
in favor of religion, are now prioritizing business.
"This may yet prove to be the Achilles heel of Central
"In the past people gave up trade to focus on making Anatolia's ambitions to catch up economically with the
Islam the center of their lives," said Arslan, a practicing European Union," noted an ESI report on the region
Muslim who has built a mosque in the basement of Ipek's entitled "Islamic Calvinists."
headquarters building where workers can pray. "People in
Anatolia today view the Western world as a model, not Cardaroglu, who has been active in the women's branch
Islam, and because of globalization, they want to be of the AK Party in Kayseri, said that the party was full of
successful." women, but that there was a glass ceiling she would like
to break. She said that the reality in Kayseri was that the
Arslan, who apprenticed in a small furniture workshop boardroom was more inviting for women than the politi-
that he transformed into an international company with cal sphere, because in business, results were what mat-
€83 million in annual sales, lamented that the stereotype tered.
of Turkey as an agricultural backwater driven by Islam
was hampering business by keeping away much-needed "Women like me can't succeed in the party, we can't
investment. reach the top," she said. "I am too outspoken and they tell
me to shut up."
He said that Ipek would double its profit if it were based
in a country viewed as more Westernized.